The network of F-35 Lightning II fighter operators in the Asia-Pacific region continues to grown and strengthen.
Until 2 August, all Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II fighters based or deployed in the Asia-Pacific region were conventional take-off and landing (CTOL) F-35A and short take-off/vertical-landing (STOVL) F-35B variants. When USS Carl Vinson (CVN-70) departed Naval Base Coronado in San Diego, California, and embarked Carrier Air Wing 2 (CVW-2), the F-35C carrier variant became the final model to deploy.
The F-35 aircraft is equipped with an array of cutting-edge sensors and is designed to operate and survive in the types of contested environments likely to be encountered through to 2025, based on the aircraft’s configuration when each variant achieved initial operational capability (IOC), and with greater operational lethality than legacy multi-role jets. Deficiencies continue to be corrected by new releases of the mission system software suite which continually improves the aircraft’s capability: the current load is designated Block 4, 30 series.
Its primary sensor is Northrop Grumman’s APG-81 active electronically scanned array (AESA) fire-control radar. Others are Northrop Grumman’s AAQ-37 electro-optical distributed aperture system (DAS) which provides the pilot with a spherical view around the jet; Lockheed Martin’s AAQ-40 electro-optical targeting system (already subject to a major upgrade); and the BAE Systems’ ASQ-239 electronic warfare (EW) countermeasures system.
The jet can carry a variety of air-to-air missiles and air-to-ground weapons. Included are the Raytheon’s AIM-9X and AIM-120 AMRAAM missiles, the GBU-12 laser-guided bomb, the dual mode GBU-49 bomb, and a suit of GPS-guided weapons: Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM), GBU-39/B Small Diameter Bomb I, and on the US Navy’s F-35C, the AGM-154 Joint Stand-Off Weapon (JSOW). All models carry weapons inside two weapons bays when operating in full-stealth mode, and additional weapons on external pylons when operating in non-stealth mode often dubbed beast mode.
The three models are fitted with a 25mm General Dynamics GAU-22/A four-barrel gatling gun; the F-35B and F-35C models carry a GAU-22/A cannon in a missionised pod mounted on the aircraft under fuselage.
The specification reads well, but all is not well for the F-35 programme. According to the director, Operational Test and Evaluation’s (OT&E) FY2020 Annual Report released by Dr Robert Behler in 2021, the average fleet-wide monthly availability rate for US aircraft (includes all aircraft categories – those designated for combat, training, and operational test and tactics development), for the 12 months ending September 2020, is below the target value of 65 percent.
The DOT&E’s assessment of the trend shows evidence of slight overall improvement in US fleet-wide availability from 2019 through at least early 2020, followed by an extended period of no clearly discernible trend. Monthly availability surpassed the target value of 65 percent for the first time ever in 2020, and peaked in April at an all-time programme high, but it has been as much as nine percent lower than the all-time high since then.
The US combat coded fleet of aircraft are assigned to units that can deploy for combat operations; the training fleet for new F-35 pilot accession; and the test fleet for operational testing and tactics development. The proportion of the fleet that is combat coded has risen steadily over time and was a little less than half of the whole US fleet over the period considered. The combat coded fleet, which has the newest aircraft on average, demonstrated the highest availability and achieved the 65 percent target for monthly average availability for the 12 months ending in September 2020.
Such is the need and indeed growing dependency on the F-35 Lightning II, that the jet continues to be ordered in ever bigger numbers. In October 2019, the then Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition and Sustainment, Ellen Lord announced an agreement between the Department of Defense (DoD) and Lockheed Martin for three low-rate initial production lots for a total of 478 aircraft at a cost of $34 billion: Lot 12 (149), Lot 13 (160), and Lot 14 (169): 291 for the United States and 127 for export customers. By variant the agreement covers 351 F-35As, 86 F-35Bs and 41 F-35Cs, all reportedly for less than $80 million a shot, finally achieving the F-35 Joint Program Office’s unit cost requirement. Negotiations between the Joint Program Office and the Lockheed Martin-Pratt & Whitney combo is currently underway for the next three production lots: Lot 15 should include 116 F-35As, 29 F-35Bs and 24 F-35Cs; Lot 16 should include 101 F-35As, 32 F-35Bs, and 24 F-35Cs; and Lot 17 should include 98 F-35As, 37 F-35Bs and 24 F-35Cs, for a total of 485 jets. Details are expected to be announced this October.
Known details of F-35 operators around the Asia-Pacific region are listed nation-by-nation.
By the end of May 2021, the Royal Australian Air Force’s (RAAF) Air Combat Group had 37 F-35As based at RAAF Base Williamtown in New South Wales: the first two arrived at the Aussie mega-base on 10 December, 2018. F-35 flying started in January 2019 which contributed to the F-35A Lightning II Verify and Validation programme (V&V) designed to assess the F-35A air system’s ability to meet the F-35A IOC requirements such as interoperability with the Airbus KC-30A tanker and Boeing E-7A AWACS, weapons events and live-firing exercises, and forward deployment to remote RAAF bases such as Townsville in northern Queensland and Tindal in the Northern Territory. The V&V programme continued until the end of last year when the RAAF declared the F-35’s IOC. At the time, the then Commander of Air Combat Group (ACG), Air Commodore Michael Kitcher said: “By December 2020, Australia will have established a sovereign training capability and completed verification and validation of the Australian F-35A capability, and one operational squadron [3 Squadron] will be proficient in air combat, strike, and offensive air support, and ready to deploy in support of Australia’s national interests.”
Two RAAF pilots conducted their first training mission with the F-35A after completing a two-month academic and simulator transition training programme at Williamtown on 15 July, 2019, the first to do so. Last year, the RAAF completed the transition of F-35 training from Luke Air Force Base in Arizona to Williamtown. The first pilots were expected to graduate from the full course in July 2021.
In January 2021, in accordance with its F-35 plan, the RAAF issued its F-35 IOC declaration, official recognition of its ability to conduct type-conversion courses for both pilots and maintainers in Australia, produce indigenous mission data files, and the required number of spares and Australian industry support were in place. An example of the latter was acceptance of the first F-35A aircraft in a maintenance, repair and overhaul depot operated by BAE Systems Australia in February, a facility that is likely to maintain aircraft from other nations in the Asia-Pacific region.
Japan’s Air Self Defense Force (JASDF) was the first F-35 operator in the Asia-Pacific region to declare an IOC in April 2019. Excluding the first four JASDF jets, all others will be assembled by the final assembly and check out (FACO) facility at Nagoya, established by Lockheed Martin and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries (MHI).
F-35A AX-6 was the second produced by the Nagoya FACO but the first to be delivered to Misawa Air Base in the north of Honshu on 24 February, 2018. The aircraft was assigned to the 302nd Hikotai (squadron), part of the 3rd Kokudan (wing) and a component of the Hokubu Koku Hometai (Northern Air Defence Command), Japan’s first operational F-35A unit, which started flight operations in March 2019. Today, Misawa is also home to the 301st Hikotai, the JASDF’s second F-35A squadron which was established at the base on 15 December, 2020, with at least one F-35A assigned with squadron tail markings. Throughout 2021, the 301st Hikotai will continue its work-up to IOC declaration and has received additional aircraft from the Nagoya FACO. Before it moved to Misawa, the 301st Hikotai was the JASDF’s last F-4E Phantom squadron based at Hyakuri Air Base north of Tokyo.
Despite its need to replace the ageing F-4EJ fleet with F-35As, the JASDF is set to receive 42 F-35Bs. The plan was announced by Japan’s then Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in December 2018 making Japan the fourth nation to opt for the STOVL variant. Japan’s government decided to procure the F-35B which requires a much shorter runway upon which to land, an essential requirement for future deployment to its southern islands where long runways are in short supply. But JASDF F-35B tasking will also include at-sea deployments operating from Izumo-class multi-purpose operation destroyers ( JS Izumo (DDH-183) and JS Kaga (DDH-184), currently in service with the Japanese Maritime Self Defense Force (JMSDF), modified with reinforced flight decks and the required systems to support F-35Bs. Both programmes are being implemented to bolster Japan’s air defence capability around its southern islands.
Republic of Korea
Cheongju Air Base in the south-central North Chungcheong province of the Republic of Korea is now home to 17 Fighter Wing, the Asian nation’s F-35A organisation, which currently comprises 151, 152 and 156 fighter squadrons: the latter currently in transition. The three squadrons operate from F-35-specific facilities comprising hangars, a training centre, storage, and squadron facilities that were constructed under supervision by the US Army Corps of Engineers, Far East District over a four-year period.
Seven days after departing Luke Air Force Base, Arizona, where the first six Republic of Korea Air Force (RoKAF) F-35As were operated by Air Force Reserve Command’s 944th Fighter Wing, part of the F-35 international pilot training schoolhouse, F-35As 18-005 and 18-006 arrived at Cheongju Air Base on 29 March , 2019. Aircraft 19-007 and 19-008 arrived on 15 July, 2019, 18-003 and 18-004 on 21 August, and 18-001 and 18-002 a few days later.
Air Force Reserve Command’s 944th Fighter Wing started RoKAF pilot training in 2017 which included Major Kiyun Jung who flew his first solo mission following months of intensive academic, simulator and hands-on training on 20 July, 2018.
According to a National Assembly audit report released on 10 October, 2019, the RoKAF stated that 13 F-35As would be delivered by the end of 2019 (allocated to 151 Fighter Squadron), followed by 13 in 2020 (allocated to 152 Fighter Squadron) and 14 in 2021 (for allocation to 156 Fighter Squadron), to complete delivery of all 40 jets ordered.
On 6 May, 2019, the RoKAF named the F-35A aircraft as the Freedom Knight and declared IOC of the F-35A with 151 Fighter Squadron at Cheongju Air Base on 17 December, 2019.
Seoul’s acquisition of the F-35A has equipped the RoKAF with the most advanced strike fighter currently available on the world market. Its capabilities give the RoKAF the ability to strike all manner of North Korean targets in the event of aggressive action launched by Pyongyang, despite the north’s robust integrated air defence system.
In January 2020, the US State Department approved a possible foreign military sale (FMS) to the Republic of Singapore for up to 12 F-35B aircraft and related equipment for an estimated cost of $2.75 billion. The Republic of Singapore government requested to buy four F-35Bs with an option to purchase an additional eight, and up to 13 Pratt & Whitney F135 engines for an estimated cost is $2.750 billion.
Official details of the basing option for the F-35Bs remains unknown, but is likely to be Tengah Air Base, the current home of the Republic of Singapore Air Force F-16 fleet.
Pacific Air Forces had no F-35A units within its ranks until the 356th Fighter Squadron was re-activated at Eielson Air Force Base in Alaska on 10 October, 2019, in preparation for the arrival of its first F-35A Lightning IIs. The US Air Force announced its decision to base F-35As at the near-Arctic base in 2016. The 356th was the first of two assigned to the resident 354th Fighter Wing. On 18 December, 2020, the 355th Fighter Squadron also reactivated at Eielson, its home until 2007 when it deactivated as A-10A Thunderbolt unit.
Once the 355th achieves IOC with its full complement of 26 aircraft, the 354th FW will have 54 jets assigned. Located, 100 miles south of the Arctic Circle and literally on top of the world, the 354th FW is perfectly placed to deploy around the Indo-Pacific region providing commanders in both the United States Indo-Pacific Command Pacific and Africa-Europe commands with significant rapidly deployable combat capability.
Elsewhere in the Indo-Pacific theatre, the US Marine Corps’ Marine Air Group 12 has two F-35B squadrons permanently based at Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni, Japan. Marine Fighter Attack Squadron 121 (VMFA-121) ‘Green Knight’ arrived at Iwakuni in January 2017 followed by the re-establishment of VMFA-242 ‘Bats’ on 16 October, 2020.
According to Brigadier General Chris McPhillips, commander of the 1st Marine Aircraft Wing based in Okinawa, Japan: “The F-35B is an expeditionary platform that literally holds doors open for the Fleet Marine and Joint Force. F-35B basing in Japan is not by accident, it has occurred here more rapidly than in other parts of world which is a testament to our commitment to Japan and the region.
The US Marine Corps is already conducting Expeditionary Advanced Base Operations (EABO) around the Indo-Pacific theatre which has already involved VMFA-121. According to the official US Marine Corps’ definition, EABO is a form of expeditionary warfare that involves the employment of mobile, low-signature, operationally relevant, and relatively easy to maintain and sustain naval expeditionary forces from a series of austere, temporary locations ashore or inshore within a contested or potentially contested maritime area to conduct sea denial, support sea control, or enable fleet sustainment.
Similarly, the US Air Force is practising its Agile Combat Employment (ACE) concept of operation around the Indo-Pacific theatre. Eielson’s F-35s squadrons have already started to conduct initial phases of ACE training, but not away from their home station. The ACE concept of operation is defined as the effective employment of airpower to seize, retain, and exploit the initiative in a contested environment.
At the time of writing, the US Navy’s USS Carl Vinson (CVN 70) was underway in the Pacific around Hawaii with Carrier Air Wing 2 embarked. Unlike any other recent carrier deployment to the Indo-Pacific region, CVW-2 has additional Boeing EA-18G Growler (2), and Northrop Grumman E-2D Hawkeye (1) aircraft assigned to support the air wing’s F-35C Lightning IIs. Operated by Strike Fighter Squadron 147 (VFA-147) ‘Argonauts’, this summer’s deployment by the USS Carl Vinson to the Indo-Pacific region is the first US Navy carrier cruise to ever have the stealthy F-35C embarked. It is also the first time outing for the brand new Bell Boeing CMV-22B Osprey Carrier Onboard Delivery tiltrotor aircraft.
Deployed as planned, and in accordance with the US Navy’s most recent deployment schedule, having the USS Carl Vinson underway packed to its rafters with an eye-watering selection of aircraft gives the United States another base for its F-35s around the region. A carrier is of course a sea base but lends to the US Navy’s Distributed Maritime Operations (DMO) concept which is central to the US Navy and US Marine Corps’ ability to conduct enduring sea control and power projection missions. The US Navy defines DMO as distributed naval forces integration of effects, and manoeuvre designed to enhance battle space awareness and achieve surprise, and in theory to neutralise threats, overwhelm and impose operational dilemmas on the adversary.
by Mark Ayton